Latino families in Sonoma County struggle with both distance learning, COVID-19 risks
This spring, Bryan Velasco did the majority of the work for his sixth grade class at Luther Burbank Elementary School in Santa Rosa on his cellphone.
His sister, Ashlyn Martinez, a third grader, worked on a school-issued Chromebook. Sometimes Bryan and Ashlyn had classroom Zoom meetings the same time, crashing their Wi-Fi hot spot, which was provided by Santa Rosa City Schools when it became clear the coronavirus pandemic would extend distance learning through the end of the school year. Then the mic on Ashlyn’s computer stopped working, making it impossible for her to ask her teacher, Anne West, any questions.
“Wi-Fi is good but not that good,” Bryan said. “It would glitch out or everything would stop and freeze. Every time I would talk it would freeze for me. I couldn’t hear anything my teacher or classmates were saying and they couldn’t hear me.”
When asked where they wanted to be when school starts in August, both were emphatic: They want to go back to school. They miss their friends. They miss their teachers. Doing schoolwork was too difficult from home.
That option is no longer on the table for Bryan and Ashlyn or any other of Sonoma County’s 70,000 school kids. On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered schools in Sonoma County and 31 other counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list to move all instruction online to start the school year.
Sonoma County’s largest school districts, including Santa Rosa City Schools, were already preparing to keep their campuses closed, at least for the beginning of the school year. While the outcome was not unexpected, the decision to keep students home in distance learning programs is shattering on many fronts for some families.
For thousands of Latino families in Sonoma County, the question of whether students return to school campuses is not one merely of convenience or even one solely based on academics. The families most negatively impacted by distance learning — because of language divides and difficulty accessing technology and daytime child care — are also the same families disproportionately contracting COVID-19 in Sonoma County.
That puts Latino families on a collision course between two competing needs: The children who are less likely to thrive in technology-heavy, distance learning programs — the ones who would benefit most from returning to a normalized school setting — are the same children who face the highest risk of contracting or transmitting the virus that is most easily spread through sustained group contact in enclosed areas. In a word: A classroom.
’They really don’t want to get sick’
Nearly 70% of the coronavirus infections in Sonoma County are in the Latino population, despite Latinos making up just 27% of the county’s 500,000 residents. Among all locals under 18 who tested positive for the virus through Friday, 158 of 178 individuals, or 89%, were Latino.
The Velasco family is well aware of the dangers of the virus — especially to a family like theirs.
The Velascos live in a three-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa’s South Park neighborhood, where Bryan and Ashlyn live with their mom, Ana, and her parents. Ana is expecting her third child this week. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and forced hundreds of thousands of people in Sonoma County to either work from home or pushed them out of a job, all three adults in the house — considered essential front-line employees — continued to work. Ana Velasco works at a check-cashing service, her mom as a housekeeping manager at a hotel and her dad at a nursery.
“They know they have to go to work and everything, but they are also being safe,” Bryan said. “They have to wear masks during work because they really don’t want to get sick.”
Students largely on their own
When the coronavirus pandemic struck and schools were shuttered almost overnight in mid-March, educators in Sonoma County scrambled to move to so-called distance learning where students would access assignments online, via video and, in some cases, paper packets distributed from school sites. The shift in focus was unprecedented and not without its challenges.
Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in Sonoma County with nearly 16,000 students, moved to loan 4,000 Chromebooks to any household that needed one. Then the district began lending out 1,000 Wi-Fi hot spots. Teachers pivoted from standing in front of whiteboards and addressing their class to delivering lessons virtually.
But those virtual lessons are more easily accessible in households with multiple computers, broadband internet connections and an adult at home to act as a learning coach. At Burbank, and other schools, the move to distance learning shined an even brighter spotlight on needs that have always been there.